2023 Innovator Award Winner

HONORS | Experienced Alumnae

Helene Servillon, AMD’12

Founding Partner, JourneyOne Ventures

Helene Servillon headshot

Cannabis and Capital? Life’s Green (and Growing) for Helene Servillon.

by Brilee Weaver  |  October 20, 2023

Cannabis has a bad rap. It’s an unconventional industry with significant barriers to growth—but Helene Servillon is clearing the way. For the founding partner of JourneyOne Ventures, a capital fund that invests in fast-growing cannabis companies, success starts at the roots.

“Most people have a default, negative natural sentiment around cannabis,” says Helene Servillon. But for her—a native of California, the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in the United States—cannabis was less a vice and more a vehicle of social connection while growing up. In San Francisco, she says, “it was just weed.”

Today, another definition seeds Servillon’s current pursuits in venture capital.

“When I talk about cannabis, I like to talk about a plant,” says Servillon, founding partner at JourneyOne Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund that invests in what she calls “misunderstood” markets. And, as access to medicinal and recreational cannabis expands in states across the U.S., that eccentric plant is in need of a rebrand.

The industry is, in a word, complicated. Though some research estimates that the legal cannabis sector will reach between $50 and $70 billion in annual sales by the end of the decade—making it, in Servillon’s words, a “high-value crop”—regulatory blockades to business still exist at the federal level.

 Cannabis is currently classified by the federal U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, as a “Schedule 1” substance, defined as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It’s the same designation attributed to heroin and ecstasy, and that bad rap can have serious implications for cannabis entrepreneurs. First, the federal tax code prohibits them from “writ[ing] off a lot of their business expenses.” Second, banks can currently be penalized for providing services to cannabis businesses—which means they often have to rely on all-cash models.

These modern manifestations of the decades-long War on Drugs, which began when President Richard Nixon declared substance abuse America’s “public enemy number one,” have tested Servillon’s ambition to heal and connect people with cannabis—though she’s stayed the course as the national conversation around the plant shifts.

“There are a lot of people who would have given up and gone home,” says Sarah Stewart, venture partner at JourneyOne, which has raised millions in investments so far. “But I don’t think it’s ever once crossed Helene’s mind to stop trying to build.”

Early in her venture capital career, Servillon discovered little “diversity” among investors. Women, people of color, and members of the queer community weren’t writing the checks, she says. Industries such as cannabis were on the outs, too. Servillon resolved to ditch the status quo of traditional markets and their investors—men, who continue to represent upwards of 80 percent of senior investment professionals—and bring budding businesses and partners together.

At JourneyOne, Servillon pairs fast-growing cannabis companies with investors who have backgrounds in different fields. Because they raise in more established markets, she says, those investors often have more green to give (along with lessons from other industries in their portfolios). In turn, the investors have the opportunity to expand their networks to include people from unexpected and underestimated backgrounds. Those partnerships are what really turn high risk into high reward, says Servillon.

“We’re not just living in the cannabis world,” she says of JourneyOne. “I’ve built relationships and bridges to traditional venture capitalists. Part of my job as an industry leader is to help them understand our industry.”

Servillon’s mission to catalyze cannabis recently captivated fellow entrepreneurs affiliated with her alma mater, Northeastern University. At the 2023 Innovator Awards, Women Who Empower judges—hailing across disciplines—recognized Servillon with honors in the experienced alumnae category. She’s one of 28 founders who took the spotlight for both trailblazing thought leadership and expert execution this year.

“[Journey is] a word that helps ground me in what I’m doing. You may never get to the end goal. But if the journey to that end goal isn’t enjoyable or fulfilling, why would you ever take that journey?”

—Helene Servillon, AMD’12

“[Journey is] a word that helps ground me in what I’m doing. You may never get to the end goal. But if the journey to that end goal isn’t enjoyable or fulfilling, why would you ever take that journey?”

—Helene Servillon, AMD’12

The startup scene first intrigued Servillon as she reflected on her co-op experiences at Northeastern, where she studied media communication and business. She’d leaned into her curiosities and tested different roles on co-op, but she yearned for greater challenges than the traditional corporate world could offer her, she says. Her “spirit of being entrepreneurial” would be fully realized, she thought, when she had the chance to build from the ground up.

She spent a few years spearheading distribution and development for electric bicycle companies, then transitioned to voice analytics. The artificial intelligence and machine learning central to her job may have been built for detecting patterns, but Servillon became most interested in breaking them—especially in her own life.

“I didn’t feel it,” says Servillon of her role at the time. “And I wanted to feel [deeply connected to] my work. I wanted to be in a culture that really inspires me, and work with products that really inspire me.” Before long, she’d given up her office in downtown Los Angeles and embarked on the defining (albeit ongoing) search for a purpose that led her to JourneyOne.

Servillon is a lifelong learner at heart. As the youngest of four siblings who moved around a lot as children, she says, she grew to embrace change as part of her DNA. When her personal and professional foundations inevitably shift, Servillon finds her footing by absorbing what’s new (she’s known for “shotgunning podcasts”), reconsidering what’s known, and accelerating what’s to come. Because, for her, life is an experiment to be tested and questioned.

“I get the sense with Helene that she really enjoys the process,” says Stewart, who started out as an investor with JourneyOne. She’d caught on to Servillon’s tenacious energy from their first call, admiring how she balanced the agility required of her startup mindset and the cannabis industry with her unwavering, long-term vision to change markets and minds.

The journey has been winding, and that’s the whole point. Upon founding the fund, Servillon was conscious that—if it were to be anything like her or the cannabis industry itself—JourneyOne would need to evolve to meet the moment. Its moniker, then, would communicate the growth and momentum to come.

“[Journey is] a word that helps ground me in what I’m doing,” says Servillon. “You may never get to the end goal… But if the journey to that end goal isn’t enjoyable or fulfilling, why would you ever take that journey?”

It’s been a literal trip, too. Servillon recently charted a European tour from Stockholm and Berlin to Amsterdam and London to assess potential international opportunities for JourneyOne. Though legalization and operation are a “whole different ball game” outside the U.S., she says, the potential to augment our lives is the same. And she’s not just talking about cannabis.

Take, for example, Servillon’s mindfulness retreat in the countryside of Holland. There, she embarked on her first facilitated psychedelic experience among a “room full of healers.” Her mind? Blown.

“I gained so much from this,” she says of the retreat. “How can I create more opportunities for people of all classes and wealth demographics to get this same kind of help [in] their lives?”

Servillon’s ability to bring people and resources together is her hallmark, says Stewart. The “village” at the center of JourneyOne—rich with social capital—is what makes progress in an industry as challenging as cannabis possible, she says.

That’s why, as new markets emerge across the U.S. and internationally, Servillon remains committed to learning about the people she encounters beyond what they do professionally.

“Your work will always change,” says Servillon. “I’d rather learn about your life journey and where you want to be on it.”